Our leaders: Are they very smart or incredibly stupid?
WHEN the central character in the 1998 movie Enemy of the State feigns ignorance about what’s happening, his good-guy sidekick explodes and shouts, “You’re either very smart – or incredibly stupid.”
It’s a line that resonates these days when seeking to understand many of the world’s political leaders and especially those in this region.
First, it encapsulate the rather perverse fact that trying to distinguish between smartness and stupidity can be strangely difficult, even when assessing figures who are in the public eye every day.
That has been made clear by the rise of Donald Trump, who, despite a wobbly debate performance on September 26, is now within an inch of becoming the most powerful man in the world.
Ask a dozen people if Trump is smart or stupid and the answers will balance out more or less equally, although sometimes more people will say he is stupid than say he is smart.
But it does not seem to matter either way, for the fact is that in a little over a month’s time, he may be elected president of the United States.
It is a prospect that unnerves many people in this region who fear that Trump’s actions may roil Southeast Asia’s relative stability and strategic balance. and may even precipitate global chaos.
When a slew of foreign ambassadors based in Washington were surveyed about this, they responded in a most undiplomatic manner; indeed, one might say they spoke in Trumpist language.
“He is a clown,” said one ambassador. “He’s nuts,” said another. None appears to have said he is very smart.
The survey also revealed that if they were able to vote, only 7 percent of these plenipotentiaries would vote for Trump over his rival Hillary Clinton.
But then these are guys who speak French and stand up when a lady enters a room, so perhaps they are among the few who can distinguish between smart and stupid.
As for the struggling masses who clean their own shoes, they are biding their time, both about Trump and his startling equivalents in this region.
No prizes for guessing who they are: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, General Prayut Chan-ocha of Thailand, and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.
Are these guys very smart or incredibly stupid? It is often hard to say.
Aside from Prayut, who seized power in a coup and is an exception, the others have all won elections, perhaps questionably at times, but they thus far have retained power.
That said, most independent observers would not be surprised in the least if any one of them, or even all of them, were to be kicked out tomorrow.
For they all behave, often repeatedly, in ways that makes common folk stop as if struck by a thunderbolt and wonder: Is our leader totally bonkers? Or some kind of weird genius? Or is it raining meatballs?
Let’s get specific and look at Duterte, the wackiest member the elected trio, whose penchant for crude comments about everyone from Pope Francis to US President Barack Obama defies all logic.
After all, Catholics form a huge majority in his country – more than 80pc, and America is a longstanding treaty ally that provides the Philippines with a security umbrella.
Yet Duterte mocks both – just as he mocks the United Nations and anyone else who criticises him.
His crass pomposity and bragadaccio have briefly made him more popular at home, but there is a tide in the affairs of men and recent signs indicate that it may be starting to go out for Duterte.
Last week, social media in the Philippines was awash with talk of a possible military coup by officers upset by the president’s insults against allies and his support for the mass murder of alleged drug dealers on the streets.
Some analysts have already surmised that like Joseph Estrada, one of his recent predecessors, who was turfed out after completing less than half his term, Duterte will not last long in the presidential palace.
A similar fate is possible for Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Malaysia’s Najib, who have both survived recent batterings, and, in Hun Sen’s case, reacted with language Duterte and Trump would endorse.
Indeed, in almost vigilante style, the Cambodian leader vowed last week to “eliminate” his political opponents if they proceed with a planned demonstration against his government.
Rival legislators have already been beaten up by Hun Sen’s security forces, while the judiciary, widely viewed as politically biased, has routinely imprisoned oppositionists on trumped-up charges.
The crackdown is seen as part of an early preparation for the next general election due in 2018, when many predict that the Cambodian opposition has a decent chance of building on its near victory in the previous polls.
Hun Sen will no more allow that to happen than his Malaysian counterpart Najib will countenance being forced out over a multi-billion-dollar scandal at 1MDB, a state wealth fund for which, as chair, he was responsible.
Najib, an urbane, British-educated Malay, let his stepson exploit 1MDB, let his top advisor seduce a Mongolian model who was later murdered, and lets his brash shopaholic wife run riot in designer stores.
Yet for now, like Duterte and Hun Sen, he survives. So perhaps these guys really are very smart – or the voters are incredibly stupid.
Either way, solace may be sought in the Bible’s Psalm 146, verse 3: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”
In other words, please don’t get suckered in by crude tough guys, because when push comes to shove they’ll only look after number one.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen takes photo with a 360-degree camera during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three Summits in Vientiane, Laos, on September 7.